Mike and Brandon McNealy spent almost every night for two months this summer under or in a beaten-down 1979 Lincoln Continental. The Wilton, Calif., duo bought the jalopy through Craigslist, got it running and then set out to ready it for the demolition derby at the California State Fair.
McNealy, a heavy-equipment mechanic for the state, and his 16-year-old son stripped the car's interior and installed a steel roll cage. They put in a custom exhaust system and a floor shifter, rewired the car and replaced its stock gas tank with a racing one.
Hundreds of hours of side-by-side labor did more than just help Brandon win best-looking car, first place in his heat and fifth place overall in the demolition derby. It helped to strengthen the relationship between father and son.
"When we're out there, just the two of us, he'll talk more about his girlfriends and stuff that ordinarily he wouldn't share with me," McNealy said. "It's a great way to spend time together and pass knowledge from one generation to the next."
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Technology changes. The economy changes. But some things never change. Some fathers still take time out with their sons — fishing, playing sports or video games, tinkering on cars. Even in challenging times, these unshakable dads are forging family ties, modeling manhood and fatherhood, and delivering life's most important lessons.
"The bonding between a father and son is important in terms of relationships and how they'll (boys will) generalize and translate to relationships with other males," said Rob Goldman, a psychologist who works for the Suffolk County Probation Department in New York.
It's also beneficial in helping keep boys out of trouble. There's a correlation between children who wind up in the juvenile justice system and incarcerated dads or fathers who abandon their children, he said.
"It's very, very important to be engaged and enrolled in their children's lives," Goldman said. "If they feel the caretaker isn't there for them, the child is going to have relationships that can be very destructive and erratic for them."
That's one of the reasons Mike Luery, 55, decided to take his son on a cross-country trip to see the 30 major-league baseball stadiums.
He launched the expedition when son Matt, now 21, was 15 years old, "at a time when friends start to surpass fathers in adolescence."
Matt had started calling his father by his first name, complete with a bit of an attitude.
"It was his little way of pushing my buttons and letting me know 'I'm not your little boy anymore, I can do my own thing,' " Luery said.
Luery, a television news producer, was determined not to let his relationship with his son founder.
Their bonding came in the form of baseball. Every summer for five years, the pair set out on a seven- to 10-day expedition, picking a region of the country and hitting as many ballparks on their list as possible.
The slow pace of the game — Luery's wife likens it to "watching paint dry" — afforded the father and son plenty of time for conversation about pennant races and batting averages, and a chance to better connect with one another.
"Trying to get a teenage boy to open up about school or girls at the dinner table, you get shut out," said Mike Luery, who has written a book, "Baseball Between Us," about the experience. "We could keep the lines of communication up by talking baseball. He'd get so caught up in it he'd loosen his guard a little bit. All of a sudden we're talking about who he's taking to senior prom."
Like Matt Luery, Mike Luery's love of baseball was honed by his father, who took his son to many games, including the game of a lifetime, the first game of the 1963 World Series: the New York Yankees vs. the Los Angeles Dodgers.
"He came home from work one day and said, 'Michael, I got them. I got two tickets to see the World Series,' " said Mike Luery, who grew up in Connecticut. "I was on the roof."
Luery, 8 years old at the time, went to bed that night with his jeans on, Yankee jacket and glove at the foot of his bed.
With Dodger Sandy Koufax's legendary 15-strikeout performance and a three-run homer, the Yankees lost the game, 5-2.
"I cried the whole way home," Luery said.
Sons' interest in their fathers increases in middle to late childhood, as boys tend to move beyond Mom and grow more interested in the world around them, said Peter Gray, an anthropology professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who wrote "Fatherhood: Evolution and Human Paternal Behavior" (Harvard University Press, $29.95, 320 pages).
"As sons are entering the reproductive ages, ratcheting up the significance of their relationships and status, the potential guides that their fathers can serve as is hugely important," Gray said.
A little fatherly advice
William Shakespeare put it simply, and perhaps best, when he wrote "It is a wise father that knows his own child."
Here is some advice from the National Fatherhood Initiative on ways dads can connect with children.
Bonding with sons: Play ball. Teach him a sport you've always loved or help him practice one he enjoys. Offer praise.
Catch a game. Take him out to the ballgame or watch one at home. Teach him about the sport and share stories from your youth.
It's all about skills. Impart skills you feel are important for every man to know: changing a car's oil or tire, baiting a hook, grilling a burger. Tackle a home improvement project together.
Ways to be a great dad today
1. Look at your children and call out the most positive thing you notice.
2. Love your children by touching them gently and speaking to them softly.
3. Listen to what your children are saying and not saying.
4. Leave a legacy by giving your children a memory.
5. Laugh with your children. A parting thought for mothers: Let dads be dads.
"Quit trying to make them just like you," said Peter Gray, an anthropology professor at University of Nevada, Las Vegas. "Appreciate that dads may have a different agenda. It may yield some complementary developments for your child's development."